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May/June 2011
Vol. 36, No. 3


DRC: Women's bodies as battlefields

The crimes of the forces of various militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are now well publicized. The armed groups have been using the rape of women as a weapon of war for over 10 years now, including in well-publicized attacks against hundreds of women in August 2010, October 2010 and January 2011. In a March 14 article in America magazine, Kevin Clarke reports on the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR) and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (Congres National pour la Defense du Peuple, CNDP) who have been raiding villages in North Kivu province in the DRC.

The organization Centre Olame (which means "living with dignity"), a partner of Catholic Relief Services in the Bukavu archdiocese in South Kivu, was instrumental in bringing to light the extraordinary level of sexual violence that has been taking place in the brutal Congo conflict. They have documented officially the use of rape as an instrument of warfare in the Congo and have been responding to the survivors of this warfare, mostly area women.

In the DRC normality has seemingly returned to some areas in the western side, but not everywhere. The DRC, according to Amnesty International, "is rich in natural resources, including large deposits of columbite-tantalite (known as coltan), cassiterite, wolframite and gold, which are used in everyday technology such as cell phones, laptops and digital video recorders, as well as in jewelry. Many of the mines from which these minerals are extracted are under the control of armed groups, especially in the volatile eastern part of the country, where conflict has been ongoing for many years despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. A recent report by the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC found that armed groups in eastern DRC continue to control and profit from the extraction and trade of these minerals. Both the conflict and the mining of minerals, itself have led to grave human rights violations, including sexual violence, child and slave labor, and mass displacement."

NGOs such as Oxfam and other international organizations are frustrated that MONUSCO, with 19,000 peacekeepers, is ineffective. The humanitarian forces cannot safely complete their mission as the areas that they cover are very spread out, and they have not been able to apprehend the armed militias. According to the Enough! Project, "Alarmingly, the final resolution passed by the Security Council [on MONUSCO] emphasized the role of the UN to 'support,' act 'upon explicit request from,' and 'assist' the Congolese government on fronts ranging from training its army, to helping displaced people return home, and preventing armed groups from benefiting from the East's lucrative mineral resources. Of course, the catch-22 of this plan is that the Congolese soldiers are themselves one of the major predators threatening civilians and exploiting mineral wealth in the region. One Congolese commander, Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes."

At Ecumenical Advocacy Days, held in Washington, D.C. in March, Nita M. Evele of Congo Global Action said that because of the long wars, women in the DRC have been traumatized, and the terrible sexual violence there has caused the breakdown of the traditional society. Now, it can be called "the battle of rape," as women's bodies have become a battleground. Some women have been raped many times over, even eight or a dozen times.

Because of the violence against women many survivors of sexual violence suffer from grave long-term psychological and physical health consequences. These can include the problems of HIV and AIDS, traumatic fistula, depression and many other problems. Also, the shortage of medical services is critical. The number of sexually transmitted infections and HIV and AIDS among the rebels, soldiers and irregular combatants is very high.

On a positive note, a coalition of 25 organizations called the Synergy of Women for the Victims of Sexual Violence in Conflict are supporting women victims of violence by giving legal assistance, medical help, and other support for the socio-economic reinsertion of women, and by sensitizing communities. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity, therefore it should be possible for the perpetrators of rape during wartime to be tried in national and/or international courts.

Amnesty International urges the government of the DRC to take immediate action in order to prevent, punish and eradicate sexual violence and to demonstrate that this type of sexual violence can be stopped.

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